Friday, May 30, 2008

The Wide Stance: Suckling on Ignorance

There are two kinds of Republicans: millionaires and suckers. That's just partisan bluster, right?

A poll has been conducted (full version in PDF) intended to discover the link, if any, between voters' party identification and their policy preferences. The results are an astounding confirmation that the Republican party would dry up and blow away by tomorrow morning if its loyal voters weren't systematically deluded about the parties' policy choices.

Here's a summary of the poll's takeaway, and this summary is written by and from a pro-GOP perspective:

Let’s start with the economy. When voters know what party each message comes from, we loose 37% to 58% and trail among independents by 18%. Ouch. However, when you read both messages without telling voters who they come from, the story gets worse.

Republican voters like the Democrat’s message more than their own party’s message by a large 14% margin when they don’t know which party it comes from. Just as disturbing, numbers among independents drop by another 10%... giving the Democrats a massive 28% advantage. Even our horrifically damaged image is better than our message on the economy. Independents and even Republicans simply like the Democrats’ plan more than ours.

Iraq and trade both follow the exact same pattern. We’re getting smashed on both issues on the partisan test, but when you look at the nonpartisan test where our damaged image isn’t a factor, the numbers get even worse among Independents and Republicans. A few Democrats (and in the case of trade a bunch of Democrats) move our way on the nonpartisan ballot, but Independents actually agree with our messages more when they know the messages came from Republicans.

On taxes, the picture gets more complex. On the partisan text, Independents like the Democrats’ message by significant 14% margin, but Republicans still like our message and give us a resounding 39% advantage. That changes drastically on the nonpartisan test.

When the party’s names are removed, Independents are almost evenly split, giving the Democrats’ message a small 5% advantage. However, Republican voters stampede away from the GOP message. Among Republicans, support for the GOP message on taxes drops by a gargantuan 53% when the party’s names are removed, leaving the Democrats with a 14% advantage. You read that right, on the nonpartisan test, Independents like the GOP message on taxes more than Republicans do and even Independents slightly favor the Democrats.
Granted, there may be large numbers of Wide Stance base voters who remain loyal to the party for its endless cage-rattling on abortion, gays, guns, god, minorities, and the normalization of torture. Maybe they just don't care enough to pay attention to matters like the Iraq war, the economy, and taxation.

Clearly, some voters do genuinely respond to the cage-rattling. But more clearly, the fostering of ignorance on basic matters of public policy is absolutely crucial to Wide Stance electoral politics. This is why they cannot let go of talk of flag pins, cackles, inconsequential gaffes, hair cuts, and blow jobs. Take that away and they are exposed for what they are -- a party of, by, and for millionaires, looking to rouse enough suckers to carry their agenda forward.

Price Ceiling?

I say if the gas pumps can't spin fast enough to display the dollar amount corresponding to the amount of gas pumped, then this represents a natural ceiling beyond which gas prices simply cannot go.

While gasoline is still dispensed at no more than 10 gallons a minute, higher prices mean the mechanical equipment must spin faster to keep up, leading to more problems.

“When gas was a dollar a gallon, the penny wheel went to a dollar in one minute,” Mr. Renkes said. “But anything that goes four times faster is going to wear out quicker.”
Freezing the price will preserve these older gas pumps from wear and tear. I would hate to see the old gas pumps go -- they're so charming! Save the old pumps! Freeze gas prices!

But alas, we go to the roads with the rapacious oil companies we have, not with the ones we'd like to have.

(H/T Sullivan)

Vultures: The Bees of India

old world vultureAs with bees in America, so with vultures in India -- they've lately gone about disappearing, and taking their usefulness with them:

All the proper components of dokhmenashini, the Zoroastrian method of handling their dead, were in place, but the vultures that once completed the cycle by scavenging an exposed corpse in less than five minutes were missing. The custom, so ancient it was described by Herodotus 2,500 years ago, has come to an abrupt end in the past decade, as the vulture population of South Asia has plummeted. In addition to playing a crucial role in processing the human cadavers of this small religious group, vultures filled a vital ecological niche as scavengers of the dead and decaying matter that litters India's countryside.
As religious rites go, giving the dead to the vultures isn't the most grotesque of the candidates -- it has a genuine cycle-of-life quality to it -- although I have to guess no one stands around to watch the frenzied vultures feeding on granny. Or no one did when there were vultures enough to feed on granny and clear the countryside of assorted corpses.

Nothing fails like vultures?

(H/T 3 Quarks Daily)

Thursday, May 29, 2008

In Which I 'Go Hollywood' In Pursuit of Crap

Sigh. The script inside Sharon Stone's celebrity-bubble inspired her to render a Hagee-Wright-style theological pronouncement linking the recent earthquakes in China with China's repression of Tibet. In place of unhinged Christianity, Stone's divinations came with the trappings of the half-assed Buddhism she has picked up from, I don't know, an adaptation of a Herman Hesse novel she turned down back when people still tried talking her into appearing in movies:

I thought, 'Is that karma?' When you are not nice, bad things happen to you.
I can't improve on Ophelia Benson's response to this insipid twaddle:
Yeah, that's what it is all right. All those schoolchildren crushed under their schools, all their teachers, all their parents; they were all unkind to the Tibetans; China's policy toward Tibet is of course decided by schoolchildren among others.
Meanwhile, a few notches down the stupid pole, but still quite respectably stupid: Susan Sarandon is threatening to leave the USA if McSame is elected. Look, I don't want John McSame elected either, and I enjoy Sarandon's acting, but does the prospect of Susan Sarandon leaving the United States really trouble anyone? Anyone at all? Even Susan Sarandon herself? Is she someone's sine qua non, the canary in someone's mine, someone's last teetering domino? Is she, for anyone, the person whose unrenounced US citizenship keeps the USA just barely on the good side of a thin line of the tolerable? Would Tim Robbins even follow her out of the country if she left?

OK, I've dished on Hollywood a little. It's out of my system for a good long while, I hope.

GPS Hoax!

It turns out the earth-sized GPS portrait was a big fat hoax -- and it was bloggers that exposed it!

[A]fter bloggers pointed out holes in Nordenankar's claim, DHL confirmed to the Telegraph that the artwork was an "entirely fictional project".
Another enchantment shot to shit. Yay bloggers! At least we still have Santa Claus and Jesus, right?


Oh well. I still say someone is using the same technique to draw a gigantic porno across the face of the globe. Just you wait.

Teutonic Lugubriousness

I don't know if Werner Herzog is playing the part of an overly-dramatic, depressive German guy in this clip, or if this is just Werner being Werner and revealing himself to be precisely that genuine article. I don't want to know which, I just love it.

I have this same clip in audio MP3 format and, once upon a time, developed the habit of attaching it to otherwise somber business e-mails and claiming I had done so by mistake.

(H/T Altering Labyrinth)

Crisitunities in Humanist Parenting: The Science Project

Upon being told that the Chinese word for "crisis" is the same as their word for "opportunity," Homer Simpson gave the word "crisitunity" to the English-speaking world. And just in time: my son has reached that tender age when he has to produce his first school science project, and with the due date looming, I was distressed to see him describing it as a chore. A crisitunity afoot!

Like parents from time immemorial, I have injected myself and my non-believing, pro-science baggage into the effort. I have taken it as a challenge and an opportunity to show him that science is worth doing, whether school-assigned or not.

Last night, I bet him $1000 dollars that he would like my idea for a science project better than the idea he had (something about hooking light bulbs up to a battery) and as expected, he now owes me $1000: his science project will investigate which form of home entertainment is the most energy-efficient?

Voila! A lesson learned about the endless applicability of science and the hazards of gambling!

The candidates shall be Playstation 2, Nintendo 64, Wii, desktop PC, Xbox, and television.* We discussed an additional entry -- microwaving small creatures collected in the yard -- but that was just a contrived entry point to a discussion of scientific ethics.

We've only started discussing the methodology, but he already grasps the idea of making like-with-like comparisons -- each form of entertainment will be measured in the same way and with the same units of measure (a Kill-A-Watt device, kWh), and over the same interval of time (one hour).

The ambition is to demonstrate that there are interesting questions to ask about even the most prosaic of things, including the things we already love and think we know. I hope he'll see that are distinctively scientific ways to ask and answer these questions, and that doing science can be fun.

My working hypothesis is twofold: that the dinosaur of a PC will use the most energy, and more importantly, that he'll have a lot of classmates wondering why they didn't think of the same science project.

*It seems worthwhile to note that we'll be borrowing some of these.

Wednesday, May 28, 2008

'Tis that Wretched Season in Portland

The Rose Festival in general, fleet week in particular, are upon us here in Puddle-Town. Once again, for the Nth straight year (I stopped counting several N-1's back), I beseech the vacant heavens with my bootless cries of "Why!?! Whyyyyy!?"

Hype aside, here's what it means on the plane of, you know, reality and stuff: that Waterfront Park shall be crowded with pasty visitors who don't know better and rusty carnival rides that thrill no one over six; that the park's grasses shall be trampled and stained with the drippings of deep-fried everythings sold at staggeringly high prices; that the river itself shall be jammed with boats from the Navy, Coast Guard, and this year, the EPA (yes -- the Environmental Protection Agency now maintains a boat for some reason, and that boat is presently moored in Portland. Whyyyy?!?); that one local high school girl or another shall be crowned with a crown of infamy that she will, within a few months, regret ever having sought (even if she does successfully parlay it into early admission at Cowlitz Community College); that traffic shall be even more insufferable than usual because the bridges shall be up to accommodate the comings and goings of all these idiotic boats.

Just what roses are we even festing?

Airhead Atheism

Let's agree to try to believe Tracy Quan typed this where others could see it by way of criticizing Richard Dawkins and Christopher Hitchens:

For it is not only Einstein's "music of the spheres" but music in general that must be tossed out when you refuse to appreciate religion. If you champion the splendors and benefits of Western culture, while claiming to oppose religion entirely, you are, metaphorically speaking, tone deaf.

Whether your preference is Bach, Britten, Palestrina, Kanye West or Earth, Wind and Fire, you'll find some aspect of Christianity in the details. But reggae - such as The Melodians doing Rivers of Babylon, based on a psalm of the exiled Jews - can't easily be separated from religion, either. Run from religion, if you must, but you can't hide from song, sculpture, poetry, architecture, painting, tourism or food.
How does this criticism, such as it is, relate to views actually held by Richard Dawkins or Christopher Hitchens? Or anyone else?

In chapter three of The God Delusion, Dawkins addresses the so-called "Argument from Beauty," and his counterargument assumes the greatness of the artists he mentions by name, which include Shakespeare, Michelangelo, Raphael, Bach, Haydn, Mozart, Beethoven, Schubert, and Emily Brontë. As for Bach, whom Tracy Quan was careless enough to invoke by name, Dawkins opens the discussion by numbering a piece from Bach's Matthäuspassion as one of his favorite pieces of music.

As for Hitchens, since reading God Is Not Great or checking on his years of work as a literary critic for The Atlantic Monthly appears to be beyond the reach of Quan's attention span, she might have checked this transcript (regrettably of Hugh Hewitt's radio program) featuring a discussion between Hitchens and David Allen White on Christianity's impact on western civilization. Suffice to say Hitchens does nothing in the way of "tossing out" all the thinkers and artists who don't fit his anti-god mold.

Quan's scattered musings eventually take her to this:
Some of my fellow atheists are to non-belief what being nouveau riche is to the traditionally rich. It's as though they've just discovered God doesn't exist, and they can't wait to tell you all about it. I cringe each time one of these noisy non-believers gets on their soap box.
Reading Tracy Quan reaquaints me with the sort of non-believer that makes me cringe.

It hardly seems necessary to point out that appreciating a work of art has no necessary relationship with agreeing with the artist's religious commitments. But apparently it counts as an insight charged with frisson in some circles.

(via normblog)

Here's an earlier post of mine related to similar criticisms of Dawkins et. al.

How Joe Dulls the Pain

It's the rarest of things that allows me to look back without pain on election 2000, with its l'affair des hanging chads, Bush v. Gore jurisprudence, and all the rest. But I can always take refuge in this one solid fact: at least Joe Lieberman didn't become vice president.

Holy Joe's latest embrace of far-right lunacy is to share the podium and hug the jiggly folds of pastor John Hagee at the forthcoming "Christians United for Israel" hootnanny. This would be the same John Hagee that even John McSame has found too inconvenient to keep around; these comments of Hagee have not deterred Lieberman, who is Jewish:

“Then god sent a hunter. A hunter is someone with a gun and he forces you. Hitler was a hunter. And the Bible says — Jeremiah writing — ‘They shall hunt them from every mountain and from every hill and from the holes of the rocks,’ meaning there’s no place to hide. And that might be offensive to some people but don’t let your heart be offended. I didn’t write it, Jeremiah wrote it. It was the truth and it is the truth. How did it happen? Because God allowed it to happen. Why did it happen? Because God said my top priority for the Jewish people is to get them to come back to the land of Israel.”

Tuesday, May 27, 2008

Latest Profile in Cowardice

Sheesh, these are getting dull. Another Bush flack has found courage, decency, and a sense of public service a few weeks after leaving office. This time it's Scott McClellan, and the specifics more or less write themselves in the pages of another unreadable post-retirement tell-all book:

Former White House Press Secretary Scott McClellan writes in a surprisingly scathing memoir to be published next week that President Bush “veered terribly off course,” was not “open and forthright on Iraq,” and took a “permanent campaign approach” to governing at the expense of candor and competence.
Yawn. Pusillanimous backbenchers who were, it turns out, wracked with anguished doubts throughout their years of craven service to Bush-Cheney have proven themselves cockroach-common of late. They're sure to multiply over the next several months, as the blessed end of the junta nears, and the courage to speak truth to power desire for book sales swells in the breasts of former Bush sycophants.

They keep writing the same book over and over. Who buys this dreck?

Coburn: Behave Like Republicans

Senator Tom Coburn (Wide Stance, Oklahoma) has priceless advice for the rest of his party: behave like Republicans!

Becoming Republicans again will require us to come to grips with what has ailed our party – namely, the triumph of big-government Republicanism and failed experiments like the K Street Project and "compassionate conservatism." If the goal of the K Street Project was to earmark and fund raise our way to a filibuster-proof "governing" majority, the goal of "compassionate conservatism" was to spend our way to a governing majority.
...Regaining our brand as the party of fiscal discipline will require us to rejoin Americans in the real world of budget choices and priorities, and to leave behind the fantasyland of borrowing without limits. Instead of adopting earmarks, each Republican can adopt examples of government waste, largess and fraud, and restart the permanent campaign against big government.
Isn't it precious how he puts the word governing in scare quotes?

I'll agree this far: Republicans have worked hard to portray themselves as fiscally disciplined, but they've worked even harder to spend money faster than they can borrow it -- and they can borrow it extremely quickly.

I think the reason for this, um, disconnect is not difficult to discern: American voters love the idea of fiscal discipline -- meaning they love hearing politicians repeat sonorous phrases in its honor -- but they love the reality of fiscal profligacy a lot more. Republicans -- and plenty of Democrats too, for that matter -- want to be seen in the news denouncing wasteful spending; but they also want to be seen the news cutting the ribbon on a new multi-zillion dollar project to add a wing to a veteran's hospital, widen a freeway, expand an airport, research chick peas, build a bridge from an underpopulated town to an unpopulated town, etc.

You have to be pretty dim to miss this dynamic, but nobody accused Senator Tom Coburn of being anything short of dim.

That said, I would love to see Republicans take Coburn's advice and crank it up to 11 heading into the November elections. It shouldn't be difficult -- just list the budget cuts you plan to make, sparing none of the details. Use bar graphs, charts, and other eye-catching graphics to show, down to the cent, precisely where you'll cut. Don't shrink from citing the particulars of how the cuts will affect your constituents. Show voters you're truly serious about fiscal discipline! Details matter!

If Coburn is right, voters will jump at the opportunity to rid themselves of the burdens of federal funds that might otherwise have found its way in their districts, and the Wide Stance will seize both the mantle of fiscal discipline and a healthy majority in Congress.

Please. Do that. Start today, and happy "governing!"

Another New Art Form, Another Porno Countdown Begins

This is a cool idea -- the artist sent a suitcase with a GPS device around the world in such a way as to create a self-portrait of global scale.

So how many hours before someone creates the first porn drawing in this way? The smart money says it's already in progress.

(via Eyeteeth)

Godspeed, Dear Turtles

Reading Andrew Sullivan give reasons for his support of the Obama candidacy calls to mind watching footage of hatchling turtles struggling out of the sand and trying to make their way to the sea. Some will make it, while many will be snatched up by hungry birds:

So why do I find myself still longing for him to win?
Because, I can't see how domestic policy could become more statist and less responsible than the past eight years. Because I want to see such a record punished with electoral defeat for fear they still don't know what they did wrong. Because I think Obama's diplomatic skills and public relations brilliance could serve this country very well. And because of what Obama represents in our collective consciousness.
Here's a turtle-by-turtle account of how I see these aspirations faring in the sands of reality:
  • I can't see how domestic policy could become more statist and less responsible than the past eight years - Agreed. "It can hardly get worse no matter what we do" is hardly a ringing endorsement, but it fits.
  • I want to see such a record punished with electoral defeat for fear they still don't know what they did wrong - Fair enough, but what is the basis for the hope that they'll actually draw the correct lessons? I harbor no such illusions. Should Obama defeat McCain, I fully expect the American right to conclude that McCain lost because he didn't follow George W. Bush slavishly enough. Even if every exit poll taken shows deep voter aversion to the idea of a third Bush term, I fully expect movement conservatives to decry McCain's traitorous, defeatist capitulations to the anti-Bush hordes. I continue to wonder "is our conservatives learning?" and I continue to answer no. And I'm hardly alone in the view that really-existing conservatism is little more than a Rube Goldberg contraption designed to preserve injustice, prejudice, stupidity, tribalism, and every other bad idea imaginable.
  • I think Obama's diplomatic skills and public relations brilliance could serve this country very well - I think so too, but it must be recognized that if elected president, he will be acting in an environment in which his political opponents will be hyperaware of any and all transgressions against their preferred standard of cartoonish bellicosity attached to Yankee exceptionalism. As I think back on 2000, I often wonder how many hours would have passed between the 9/11 attacks and Gore's impeachment, had he not immediately unleashed the full nuclear arsenal on, oh, anyone at all in the vicinity of the Middle East (except Israel).
  • Because of what Obama represents in our collective consciousness - This is very much in play! One of the larger, hungrier birds circling the scene caws loudly to the effect that Obama represents a reprehensible admixture of liberal guilt, socialism, appeasement, and elitist disdain for the tee-vee audience.
Can we get those turtles to the sea? It's audacious to hope so.

Rick Santorum Has Never Been Gay

Rick Santorum is not gay and has never been gay, and he has rarely turned down an opportunity to shout so in public. Most recently, he offers grim news for his fellow Pennsylvanians -- the gays are coming, and they're going to wreck everything!

California has just given Pennsylvania legislators a wake-up call. If legislators say they are for marriage and don't vote to protect it, they will contribute to the end of marriage, a decline of the family, more children being raised without dads, and a deep erosion of our freedom of religion.
My only question -- is it even a question? -- is whether and how soon we'll learn that Santorum is exactly as straight as fellow Wide Stance screamer Larry Craig.

(via Ed Brayton)

That Fifth Dentist

Four out of five Americans now believe the USA is on the wrong track, but as every viewer of tee-vee commercials for toothpaste knows, there's always a stubborn outlier who defies the consensus.

One such fifth dentist is commenter ChicagoJohn, who has lately chipped in comment after comment, such as this one:

But the idea that Bush somehow said: "I'm going to sacrifice golf for the Iraq war" is a deliberate lie.
Granted, I am not aware of Bush having uttered the quoted phrase. But are there instances in which Bush "somehow said" the same thing by use of a slightly different sequence of words? Or is the very suggestion a "deliberate lie"? Not that it matters on the level of habeus corpus or torture, but let's gazoogle it and see! Actually, I didn't even need the googles to find this, but already had a recent transcript linked by Dentist #5 himself:
[Reporter]: Mr. President, you haven't been golfing in recent years. Is that related to Iraq?

THE PRESIDENT: Yes, it really is. I don't want some mom whose son may have recently died to see the Commander-in-Chief playing golf. I feel I owe it to the families to be as -- to be in solidarity as best as I can with them. And I think playing golf during a war just sends the wrong signal.
Is the non-golfing related to Iraq, Bush is asked; yes, it really is, Bush answers, and then briefly expands on that answer.

Clearly Bush suffers from Bush Derangement Syndrome, the blinding hatred of his own presidency that ensnares him in, you know, deliberate lies and such. Speaking of all that, there has been much back and forth over this exchange from the same interview:
[Reporter]: Mr. President, was there a particular moment or incident that brought you to that decision, or how did you come to that?

THE PRESIDENT: No, I remember when de Mello, who was at the U.N., got killed in Baghdad as a result of these murderers taking this good man's life. And I was playing golf -- I think I was in central Texas -- and they pulled me off the golf course and I said, it's just not worth it anymore to do.
In the comments, Dentist #5 has thrown himself into to the defense of our so-called president, insisting that this answer stopped between the "o" in the word "No" and the comma immediately after it; the rest of the president's answer, the part that amounts to a detailed yes -- consisting of the president's anecdote about having had a round of golf interrupted by deadly news from Iraq, and arriving at the epiphany that it's just worth it to play golf -- only seems responsive to the question as asked.

Perceptive observers like Dentist #5 realize everything in that answer following the word "no" doesn't mean anything and doesn't count. It doesn't count because Dentist #5 says it doesn't. Bush cannot and does not, despite what he says here, connect a "particular moment or incident" with his heroic decision to stop playing golf, even though all that stuff following the comma leaves precisely that impression. No, no, no! Bush's answer stopped at no! He said no and he meant no! Any citation of this colloquy that goes beyond the word no represents Bush Derangement Syndrome at its vilest.

Here's the video of the relevant portions of the interview referenced above:

Monday, May 26, 2008

It's the Books, Stupid

Here's the trouble with the Abrahamic faiths, the problem that can't be wished away, the problem that keeps a lot of bad ideas in currency: it's the books. The books are rotten. God's words are poison.

And it's god's words, not just anybody's words. That's key -- the Bible and the Koran stay around, unexpurgated and unchanged, because people believe they came from god.

They're not only poison -- there is plenty in those books that is praiseworthy. But the rot stays around, and because it came from god himself, there's no removing the rot.

Edit out the rot and the game is up -- that move is an admission that it's an imperfect book. It's a move strictly disallowed within the game of Abrahamic religion. You can't decide god's word is no longer worth reading. You can decide Titus Andronicus is too bloodthirsty and drop it from the junior high Shakespeare class, but you can't erase the violence from Koranic Suras or expunge the absurdities from Leviticus.

You can advance novel interpretations, but this can clean things up only so far. Stretch words and squint as you might, the god of the holy books sanctions violence and prejudice, slavery and repression. People have found justification for ugly, terrible deeds in these books from day one to the present day.

Yes, people have done terrible things without reference to holy books. Robespierre and company read Diderot and Voltaire and then committed atrocities; Stalin and company read Marx and Engels and then committed atrocities. True enough.

Voltaire, Diderot, Marx, Engels (and countless other writers from the secular tradition that might be listed) are not gods. They did not take dictation from angels or transcribe enchanted golden plates forged by god. They are not infallible; they didn't claim this for themselves, and if they had, no one would have believed it. It's extremely difficult to read the works of these writers and encounter something on par with god's instructions to kill all the Malikites and Canaanites, or god's demand to execute blasphemers, homosexuals, and disobedient children.

The tu quoque rotely invoked in the defense of Abrahamic monstrosity -- for every Inquisition there's a Reign of Terror, for every Taliban there's a Stalinist Purge -- fails utterly. It fails because the texts are different. The texts differ in subject matter; the texts differ in degree and kind of authority; the texts differ in what they sanction and how they sanction it.

It's inescapably the books.

Some references: barbarity in the Koran; more barbarity in the Koran; the Bible on intolerance; the Bible on the status of women; the Bible on slavery; the Bible on its own inerrancy; assorted conflicts between the Biblical text and modern moral standards.

Ignorance as a Third Rail

Dick Polman courts indelicacy:

It's not easy to raise this topic. It seems to be OK in this country to malign educated people, to dismiss them as "eggheads" and "latte-sippers," probably because there is a sizeable anti-intellectual strain in our culture. But I would suggest that stupid people should also be ripe for open discussion - if only because millions of willfully clueless voters may well function as the swing decision-makers in a close '08 presidential election.
The delicacy of labels like "stupid" and "willfully ignorant" in the context of American politics is confirmed the very first comment made to his post:
Typical of the elite liberal media - they think everyone is dumb except them. And if you actually figure out how to get out of bed and find your poling place, if you don't vote Baraq Hussein Obama, you're just a dumb hick who can walk.
Of course, Dick Polman has not claimed that "everyone is dumb except" the Dick Polman's of the world; Dick Polman has not said anything of the sort. He has done nothing worse than quote some of the words of actual Americans as gathered in a focus group conducted by Peter Hart. Excerpts:
"I'm a little concerned. I don't know enough about [Obama's] Muslim background and their beliefs and how he views everything. I'm a little concerned. I need to check his background."
[Another voter]: "He's representing a minority in more than one case. He is African American and he is Muslim. And in light of does feel like we're being judged or pounded down on because we want to carry a gun or we want to wear the American flag pin." ...
Hart reports that whenever somebody volunteered that Obama is a Muslim (which he isn't), nobody in the room protested or sought to correct the inaccuracy. Hart writes: "When asked to raise their hands if they think that Obama is a Muslim, seven of the 12 do, including two voters who currently support him over McCain ..."
But by contrasting Polman's narrow claim with the wider one imputed to him by the commenter, and by supplying some of the details Polman was commenting on, I've played right into the game as it is played: I've played the role of the egghead elitist, or at best, the apologist for egghead-elitists; I've dared to suggest that there are ignorant voters, and that their existence is worth noticing.

It is worth noticing, but it's also worth noticing that it is still early in the campaign. There is a place in the world for people who don't live and breath politics on a daily basis, and I suspect the people quoted spend their daily energies on other things. Fair enough. In fact, there's a fair case to be made that politics-obsessed people like me are the crazy ones.

But it is also worth noting -- here goes that dreaded egghead tendency again -- that they aren't wholly uninformed. It's not as though they've never heard of Barack Obama; their misconceptions have have a definite shape, and that shape is not politically neutral: they "know" that Obama is an African-American Muslim presidential candidate who "pounds down on" gun owners and disdains flag pins.

Ignorance is one thing; ignorance actively cultivated in the service of politics is quite another.

There are valid reasons to prefer Barack Obama over John McCain, and vice-versa. Because there are valid reasons, it would be tragic -- a subversion of democracy -- if voters decided the outcome based on falsehoods.

Sunday, May 25, 2008

A Song for Memorial Day

Schubert's "Erstarrung" (English translation)

The Color and Histrionics of the Leopard Gecko

Gena the leopard gecko has blossomed into a beautiful teenage lizard.

Like all teenagers, she has a knack for getting herself into dramatic situations.

Asymmetrical Communications Challenges

Which would you rather be: the parent who has to tell a child that you brought cookies, or the one who has to break the news that her puppy was run over? Hold that thought.

Creationism's communicative task and rules of engagement: tell a crowd-pleasing, values-resonant, tradition-rich, intuitive story that begins with some theatrics in a lovely garden, gets diverted by a talking snake, course-corrects with the help of a prophet or three, and ends with the believer seated at the right hand of god playing a harp on a cloud, all the loved and lost restored, every answer provided, eternal peace assured. For the saved, there will be ping pong tables, all the latest in home theater and energy-efficient appliances, persisting youthful vitality, and truckloads of horny virgins. Since the natural world is just a dilapidated, impermanent, grimy, nematode-riddled antechamber to the Great Heavenly Hall of Salvation, its details are unimportant; but insofar as scientists, philosophers, and assorted eggheads press the point and insist on arguing about it, go ahead and lie. God will know you were lying in the service of saving souls (and even if you were lying just because you're a complete asshole, don't worry because he's all about forgiveness in any case).

Evolution's communicative task and rules of engagement: present the science truthfully. The science isn't intuitive past the first few pages of the introductory chapters, and while it is intellectually satisfying, elegant, and even beautiful in its way, it is never comforting or heartwarming.

Does anyone else see an asymmetry here?

I think everyone who hectors the scientific community over how they communicate with the public on evolution (I refer to these and those among others) needs to start with the reality of this asymmetry firmly in mind. This is not a 50-50 proposition that just requires a few kind kindly nudges and well-chosen placements of emphasis.

The message about the cookies is always going to go over better than the message about the puppy. This is not an excuse to be careless about the approach to communicating, but an acknowledgement and clarification of the challenge as it actually exists.

Saturday, May 24, 2008

Marriage and the Secular Conscience II

This is taken from a profile of Austin Dacey's ideas about secular conscience in the New York Times:

Currently, “conservatives resort to secular-sounding sociological research about child development and slippery slopes,” [Dacey] wrote, while “liberals try to debunk this pseudoscience, and accuse their interlocutors of bigotry.”

But neither side, he said, is addressing the moral heart of the matter: a core conviction that “marriage is a sacred covenant” that homosexual unions would violate. “Who is talking about that?” he asked.

“This culture war will be lost if we cannot engage in public conversation about the religious significance of marriage and the moral value of same-sex relationships,” he concluded. “Anyway, it is worth a try.”
Hmm. This is not the best example Dacey might have chosen; the moral claim that marriage is a "sacred covenant" (or some non-religious such) that should include gay people is actually a commonplace. Andrew Sullivan makes this argument on an almost daily basis on his blog.

In 2004, Oregon voters amended the state constitution to ban gay marriage, setting the stage for a moment in the none-too-distant future when people will see the barbarity in the Oregon constitution and wonder at the idiocy of our times (but I digress). Whatever else might be said of the arguments made unsuccessfully against the measure, they were positively brimming with talk of values and morals, as a cursory reading of the state's voter's pamphlet reveals.

The liberals in the drama were eager to have a values-based argument over gay marriage; the conservatives were also willing to sling moral terms around, but they also profited from slipping through the election season with as few arguments as possible, the better to let ignorance and prejudice stalk freely.

This contributes to Dacey's wider point -- dragging anti-gay ideas into the light of public scrutiny was and remains positive and constructive -- but it fails as an illustration of the claim that liberals flee from moral debates. Richer, better illustrations come from cases where god fans riot over disagreeable cartoons or shed tears over fallen blastocysts, in response to which liberals, all too often, hide under their desks and cede moral ground that should be contested.

Marriage and the Secular Conscience

On the Hullabaloo blog, wishing to give Austin Dacey's ideas about secular conscience their due, tristero puzzles over what might constitute a conversation about gay marriage, but comes up empty-handed:

In short, it is hard to have a national fundamental conversation about objections to gay marriage for the same reason it's hard to have a national conversation about the validity of "intelligent design" creationism: There is no there there. That is, there are no good rational arguments, period, for a gay marriage ban or for knowingly teaching lies as science. And given that lack of rational arguments, how is it possible to have a fundamental conversation?
Well, yes. The insistence on a rational, reality-based conversation is the insistence that bullshit arguments based on gut-level urges and uninterrogated prejudices be exposed for what they are. That parties to the discussion can't give good reasons for their policy preferences should be noticed, and it should mean that their argument is the losing one. Bad, baseless, empty ideas make for bad, baseless, empty arguments; and such arguments make for rotten public policy.

Tristero can stop looking -- this is the discussion.

That said, in an open society, the door remains open for the presentation of better arguments against gay marriage.

Randy Olson Has a Divining Rod

A post on Pharyngula brought me to Randy Olson's recent appearance on the skepticality podcast. Olson is a biologist-turned-filmmaker best known for his Flock of Dodos, a documentary that tries to strike a calm balance in the evolution-creationism conflict by noting the many positive personality traits of lying creationists and berating scientists for being smarty-pants elitists who use big words and body gestures that alienate people. He's very much against all the name-calling, finger-pointing, and other forms of negativity that characterize the "debate," such as it is, between scientists and creationists, and he seems peculiarly devoted to the idea that Stephen J. Gould should return from the dead and restore the comity and mutual respect that obtained back when Gould was popularizing evolution. Gould would often sprinkle references to baseball, Shakespeare, opera, Disney, and architecture in his writings about evolutionary science. Oh, those were the halcyon days! Who could have foreseen the conflicts to come?

My sarcasm notwithstanding, I didn't hate Flock of Dodos, nor do I think Randy Olson is an enemy; I think he makes some useful points in the podcast and in the film, and I look forward to his next film, which will be about global warming.

Which brings me to the subject of Randy Olson's divining rod: in the podcast, and less stridently in Flock of Dodos, Olson insists that there are better, more appealing, more compelling ways to promote evolution -- in his terms, to "re-brand" the science of evolution. He has, if you will, a divining rod that is pointing in the direction of this crowd-pleasing brand that will succeed where the existing brand has failed. He knows the water is there, just a little underground, if only someone -- say, someone with filmmaking skills, lots of fundraising talent, plenty of connections in the scientific community, and a solid grasp of the science and the conflicts surrounding it -- would get out their shovels and dig for it.

"Innovate!" he urges; find "new and different ways" to think about it, he nearly yells; "light fires!" he insists, all to no one in particular. These things must be done that evolution might "shake off all these labels" that have been attached to it -- eugenics, crude reductionism, nihilism, immorality and assorted other scare words that nowhere belong in a polite conversation about batting averages and life's meaning.

He quietly sidesteps the possibility that he himself, Randy Olson, should do the digging for the waters to which his divining rod points. I wonder why? I think I know why; what I don't know is why Randy Olson thinks it is his role, and a productive one at that, to complain about the failure of others to dig when he himself is conspicuously not wielding a shovel.

A few other confusions:

+ Was Expelled a success or not, and was the science community's response to it effective or not? At one point, he makes the bizarre claim that critical commentary cannot cross formal boundaries -- that the only adequate response to a snarky documentary like Expelled would be a snarky documentary that promotes evolution. But not long after, he praises the NCSE's web-based resources that rebut the film's many lies and distortions, and then describes how film reviewers have a powerful role in setting the terms in which viewers will receive (or decline) a film. The latter is clearly right: the quantity and nature of film reviews does matter to the fate and reception of a film, even if the commentary comes from a newspaper or -- gasp! -- a blog. As PZ Myers put it:

[W]e had to show that Expelled was a profoundly dishonest movie on all levels; we impeached its credibility successfully. The reviews tell the story, that they all point out how wretchedly false the story of the movie was. We can't stop people from attending the movie, but we can weaken its utility as a tool for the creationist movement.
+ Can Randy Olson honestly not tell the difference between bloggers, commenters to blogs, and evolutionary scientists? One would expect him to have these distinctions firmly in his grasp, given that he is not only an evolutionary scientist but also a blogger on a blog that accepts comments from readers. Yet throughout the podcast, he elides these elementary distinctions in the service of issuing sweeping rebukes at -- well, everyone who's bothering him, but especially the BloggerCommenterEvolutionists who have written disparaging and hurtful things about him, sometimes including swear-words(!!!). I expect an imbalanced, bed-wetting imbecile like Bill O'Reilly to confuse a blog's posts with the blog's comments -- he has pioneered something of a subgenre of whining out of it -- but, really, Randy Olson should aim higher than that. As Olson himself is careful to point out, we are indeed living and communicating in a new media environment, and while much about this Brave New Reality is still in flux, we already know it calls for everyone to hitch up his big-boy diapers.

+ Concerning vitriol: PZ Myers, Richard Dawkins, and every other BloggerCommenterEvolutionist is engaged, like it or not, in a conflict in which the other side has, in Expelled and elsewhere, explicitly linked evolution with the Holocaust. Whatever we might say of such brazen bullshit, we can reliably infer that the rhetorical gloves have been removed. As PZ Myers rather too calmly put it -- please notice the absence of obscenities:
Olson is telling us to be like Jimmy Carter, and ignoring the fact that the environment right now is dominated by the likes of Dick Cheney, unlikable thug. Even worse is that he's forgetting that it was Carter vs. Reagan, who was both likable and put up a good illusion of strength.
There is more to be said on this cluster of topics, but I've already flirted with repeating the points I made the last time I addressed Randy Olson and Flock of Dodos. So here ends the today's entry.

Let us all pray for Stephen J. Gould's glorious return.

Excursions in Bibliomancy: Montaigne

From Montaigne, "On Vanity":

This medley is a little from my theme; I go out of my way; but 'tis rather by licence than oversight; my fancies follow one another, but sometimes at a great distance, and look towards one another, but 'tis with an oblique glance. I have read a dialogue of Plato,--[The Phaedrus.]--of the like motley and fantastic composition, the beginning about love, and all the rest to the end about rhetoric; they fear not these variations, and have a marvellous grace in letting themselves be carried away at the pleasure of the wind, or at least to seem as if they were. The titles of my chapters do not always comprehend the whole matter; they often denote it by some mark only ... I love a poetic progress, by leaps and skips; 'tis an art, as Plato says, light, nimble, demoniac. There are pieces in Plutarch where he forgets his theme; where the proposition of his argument is only found by incidence, stuffed and half stifled in foreign matter. Observe his footsteps in the Daemon of Socrates. O God! how beautiful are these frolicsome sallies, those variations and digressions, and all the more when they seem most fortuitous and careless. 'Tis the indiligent reader who loses my subject, and not I; there will always be found some word or other in a corner that is to the purpose, though it lie very close. I ramble indiscreetly and tumultuously; my style and my wit wander at the same rate. He must fool it a little who would not be deemed wholly a fool, say both the precepts, and, still more, the examples of our masters. A thousand poets flag and languish after a prosaic manner; but the best old prose (and I strew it here up and down indifferently for verse) shines throughout with the lustre, vigour, and boldness of poetry, and not without some air of its fury. And certainly prose ought to have the pre-eminence in speaking. The poet, says Plato, seated upon the muses tripod, pours out with fury whatever comes into his mouth, like the pipe of a fountain, without considering and weighing it; and things escape him of various colours, of contrary substance, and with an irregular torrent. Plato himself is throughout poetical; and the old theology, as the learned tell us, is all poetry; and the first philosophy is the original language of the gods. I would have my matter distinguish itself; it sufficiently shows where it changes, where it concludes, where it begins, and where it rejoins, without interlacing it with words of connection introduced for the relief of weak or negligent ears, and without explaining myself. Who is he that had not rather not be read at all than after a drowsy or cursory manner?
Montaigne is the founding father of the blogosphere.

Precious Cats Update

It's been a veritable coon's age since I last blogged upon the new cat, Columbus, and I thought it would be good to assure my six readers that the two cats are getting along swimmingly. Wilbur (shown here licking himself) has not only suffered Columbus to live, but has tutored him in the dark housecat arts of capturing, killing, and eating spiders; begging for yolks at the sight of hard-boiled eggs; upholding a strong sense of entitlement vis-a-vis canned cat food; chewing on houseplants; getting in the way of people's footfalls and then playing the aggrieved victim when he's kicked or stepped on; and generally sitting where he shouldn't and sleeping when he shouldn't.

The other cat news is that I don't call him "Columbus," but rather "Cabbage" or "Land Orca." Columbus remains his official name, but I recognize no authority that binds me to the use of that name.

Friday, May 23, 2008

Leonard Cohen's Hallelujah

As performed by Sheryl Crow:

My favorite is Rufus Wainwright's studio version:

Rufus Wainwright, live in Ireland:

Leonard Cohen himself:

The youtubes have several more versions.


A Public Service Announcement You'll Remember

Prepare to need to take a shower after watching this video, but prepare for the taint not to wash off no matter how long a shower you take.

And you'll also want to leave your clothes on in the shower, so you might want to change into something that can stand up to a couple of hours of strong water flow.

(H/T Portland Mercury)

Friday Bush-Hatin' Blogging

George W. Bush: the Harriet Miers of Supreme Court nominees of US Presidents.

But perhaps I've been too complimentary. This li'l Bush anecdote all but defies my Bush-scorning powers -- while in public, while apparently sober, with cameras rolling, the man claimed he sacrificed golf as a salute to the suffering of the soldiers in Iraq. But it turns out it was a lie.

Worst President Ever is safe and secure and already collecting dust on a shelf somewhere in a Texas ranch, awaiting enshrinement in a presidential library that will contain, I gather, a copy of the Bible, a copy of My Pet Goat, and countless pages of heavily-redacted torture memos. He has 241 days left as president to seize Worst Human Being Ever. I'm not saying it will be easy -- it's a strong field that includes Stalin and Hitler, just to pick a couple of pieces of low-hanging moral benchmark fruit -- but Bush has been misunderestimated his whole life, right?

Fine. I've gone too far -- George W. Bush has no realistic shot at attaining Worst Human Being Ever. Congratulations on that!

Quitting Bonus

Online shoe retailer Zappos puts its new hires through a fully-paid four-week training program and then promptly offers them $1000 to quit. WTF?!? Here's WTF:

Because if you’re willing to take the company up on the offer, you obviously don’t have the sense of commitment they are looking for. It’s hard to describe the level of energy in the Zappos culture—which means, by definition, it’s not for everybody. Zappos wants to learn if there’s a bad fit between what makes the organization tick and what makes individual employees tick—and it’s willing to pay to learn sooner rather than later. (About ten percent of new call-center employees take the money and run.)
I like the cut of that idea's jib. It pisses me off a little that I didn't think of it first, but I am trying to be better than that.

It seems like a very sound approach to weeding out the people who don't, despite their protestations to the contrary, harbor a deep-seated commitment to excellence in the field of taking shoe orders over the internets. It appears to have worked well for Zappos. The idea seems promising for any number of unglamorous jobs where there is a need to distinguish those workers who are just marking time from those who are genuinely trying to do well.

I wish someone at Safeway would offer a generous quitting bonus to the slovenly teenage dingbats who keep shattering the yogurt tubs, bruising the apples, and editorializing on my purchases.

The Longing for Caves

A poll conducted by Dr. James Kennedy's Coral Ridge Ministries asked the flock "how dangerous are the following to the spiritual health of America?" and they dutifully bleated this sterling list of answers:

Spiritually Dangerous Thing - % indicating Very Dangerous

  • The ACLU and similar groups - 96
  • Pro-homosexual indoctrination - 95
  • Abortion - 93
  • Islamic terrorism - 91
  • Hollywood - 89
  • News Media - 87
  • Darwinism/evolution - 85
  • Cults and false religion - 82
  • Atheism - 82
  • Courts - 81
  • Apathetic/uninformed Christians - 79
  • Colleges and Universities - 78
  • Public education (K-12) - 69
  • Congress - 63
With the caveat that a spiritual danger is to an actual danger what a unicorn's horn is to a horse, this list says quite a bit about the priorities and predilections of America's Christianist yahoos.

"Spiritual health" appears to wither in the presence of contrary ideas and their sources, and these sources are varied and legion: schools, colleges, the wrong churches, the wrong church-goers, thought-criminals (atheistic and religious alike), movies, newspapers, the two branches of government not controlled by the Bush-Cheney junta. To open one's Christianist eyes and ears is to be assailed by danger after danger. In that case, aren't we agreed that the Christianists should all go huddle in a cave far, far away and leave the modern world to those of us who don't fear it?

No, we're not agreed: they want the quiet assurances of the cave, and they hope to remake this society until it is that cave.

A few of the entries -- abortion, terrorism, the ACLU, pro-gay indoctrination (Will & Grace re-runs?) -- invite a slightly different interpretation from the cave-longing sketched above. In these we see, I think, the sort of Biblical thinking recently made famous by John Hagee and Jeremiah Wright: these are instances and agencies of runaway moral lassitude, which gives god no choice but to send hurricanes, floods, plagues, suicidal attacks, horrible TV shows, and assorted other collective damnations.

(H/T Thoughts from Kansas)

Thursday, May 22, 2008

The DNC has thwarted my destiny!

I didn't want to like this but it's brilliant: a key scene from Downfall remixed to reflect the current state of the Clinton campaign. It's probably not as much fun for those of you who understand German.

(H/T Club Troppo)

Nissan Accomplished?

Nissan has shown off a prototype and has issued a press release, the combination of which creates the distinct impression that they'll sell an electric car in the USA by 2010:

The commitment — expected to be announced Tuesday by Nissan’s chief executive, Carlos Ghosn — will be the first by a major automaker to bring a zero-emission vehicle to the American market.
Uh ... yea. Will an actual electric vehicle go up for sale at American car dealerships in 2010, or does this just serve to kick the can down the road some more?

Environmentally-friendly cars and wars in Iraq: everything's going great, just give it another year or two.

Austin Dacey: Conscience As Open Source Ethics

Austin Dacey concludes The Secular Conscience by elucidating his idea of conscience through an extended comparison with the scientific method and the open source software movement:

Like the sciences, conscience shares many of the key features of open source methods. Discussion of matters of conscience is transparent: its reasoning is open and accessible to all. No barriers of cost or expertise or community membership keep out some discussion partners. Contributions are judged on their merits as assessed by peer review and feedback. Discussion partners share a common goal -- to seek answers to questions of meaning, identity, and value -- and common standards, like the assumption that conversation is guided by objective norms for what counts as a good reason. These assumptions are themselves open to scrutiny. And while there are no final authorities, there are clearly leaders of conscience, people distinguished by outstanding contributions to religious and ethical questions. When the network of conscience produces results -- such as the idea of civil disobedience or the idea of private property -- they are of course not licensed. But they are protected under the legal and cultural framework of an open society, where they become part of an intellectual and moral commonwealth, to be seen, heard, and read by anyone.

You are already a contributor to open source ethics. If you are like most human beings, you probably think about what you have most reason to believe and do about central human questions of meaning, identity, and value. You think about what constitutes your good and the good of others. You try to apply your principles in action and live according to your conscience. You reflect on the results and share your findings at least with others you know, if not in public discourse such as letters to newspapers, local government forums, and online forums. You listen to criticism and feedback at least sometimes and you revise your principles and values in light of the best solutions that emerge from that conversation.
Open source ethics also "expands the pool of conversation partners" so that "the chances of hitting upon defensible beliefs, values, and practices will be maximized."

That's the promise of the blogosphere, yes? And of discourse itself.

I am not entirely persuaded by the Millian view that free speech is justified because it permits experimentation with thoughts and ideas such that the better ideas are free to show up and distinguish themselves from the lesser ideas. Yes, that is a good that free speech delivers, and one can reasonably expect lost insights resulting from silencing divergent voices. But this argument seems to suggest that free speech can be shut down after "we" reach a configuration of thoughts and ideas that "we" consider final, best, complete, or what have you, whereas I don't think that end point is, in principle, reachable. I don't know who the "we" is to adjudicate the matter, or if it is reliably the same "we" on the receiving end of the adjudication; and even under a thought experiment in which I place myself in that throne, I don't know how I'd know that "we" are "there" at the final resting point after which further free speech would be pointless. I don't know what that terminus would look like; and I don't know why I can presume to get to the best ideas for someone else. Some important matters have a final answer (why are planets round?), but some do not (what is the best epic poem?). It's far from simple to say whether a given question falls under the former or the latter -- this is one more question to thrashed out under conditions of open discourse.

There is no prospect of an end to open discourse (a "final answer" on all questions) any more than there is a prospect to an end of science (a complete understanding of the natural world). And that always-openness is not a bad thing.

Dacey emphasizes the value of revisability -- that we should be free to re-think our past commitments and revise them in the light of new insights. This underscores the fact that people can and will get things wrong, and that setting them right requires the freedom to do so. This idea of revisability will be bad news for Chris Hedges, whose ongoing book tour rests on the assertion that non-believers like Dacey believe they have achieved perfection. Whereas at best, Dacey believes he has found the means of conveyance -- the secular conscience -- by which everyone can carry the conversation productively forward.

I think free speech is justified because it allows truths to emerge through the liberation of unbounded possibilities, but also, more fundamentally, because I have yet to see a convincing argument for restricting it or a source of power with sufficient legitimacy to restrict it. We should be free to speak and think freely for the same reason we should not be subjected to pain -- because we are creatures who flourish when we can speak freely and live without pain. And yes, that does postulate the value judgment that flourishing is better than not flourishing.

Hagee Out

Now that sack-of-crap pastor John Hagee has been shown to have praised the Nazis for doing god's work, John McSame has finally rejected his endorsement. But did he denounce it?

Either way, good for McSame. It's a halting and incomplete step, but a good one.

It continues to be the case that screamers like Hagee and Wright (and Falwell and Dobson and Robertson and Ratzinger and all the rest) are offering Biblical views. Throughout the Bible, god plays a role in the ebb and flow of history, punishing and rewarding nations according to his whimsy, sending storms, parting waters, propelling events, etc.

The moral squalor of John Hagee is the moral squalor of the Bible. There's an integrity to the Hagees of the world, who swallow their counterfeit reality whole, fins, barbs, scales, and all. This integrity is absent from the McSames and Obamas of the world, who strip down the theology to match their wishes and ambitions.

Thursday Emotions Blogging

Today's news provides reasons for these emotional states and many more:

  • Sad: most species of shark face extinction from overfishing, including such frequent shark documentary protagonists as whale sharks, great white sharks, blue sharks, whitetip sharks, and my personal favorite, makos.
  • Mad: Alaska's governor is working hard to ensure that polar bears are not listed as threatened species because this would inconvenience the state's oil and natural gas industries. Asshole.
  • Glad: Ford is cutting back production of SUVs and other gigantic, gas-guzzling trucks. This gives them less reason to oppose improved fuel economy standards, yes?.
  • Confused: Scientists have found a "frogamander" (Gerobatrachus hottoni) fossil in exactly the place in the geological strata where evolutionary theory would predict the presence of fossilized froggish salamanders or fossilized salamanderish frogs. Whuh? Didn't Ben Stein and assorted other lying crackpots disprove evolution?

Personages on the Mattering Map

Here's Ophelia Benson in an interview with The Freethinker:

I’m not sure I really have anything as grand as a personal philosophy – I think I have more of a methodology. It could be boiled down to not wanting to be taken for a sucker, or in more philosophical language, to a dislike of bullshit. I hate dishonest manipulative language of all sorts, and I spend a lot of time sniffing it out and then making fun of it.

But on the affirmative side, I am in favour or a lot of things, if that adds up to a philosophy. It might be more what the philosopher Rebecca Goldstein in her novel The Mind-body Problem called a mattering map. Freedom and autonomy matter to me, as do rights. So do poetry, music, starry nights. Like Richard Rorty trying to unite Trotsky and wild orchids, I’m not sure how to connect the two – so I just put them on the mattering map.
The world needs more Ophelia Bensons, but until cloning science makes that possible, make sure the one Ophelia Benson we have is on your mattering map. She blogs at the Notes and Comment section of Butterflies and Wheels, and writes in other venues as well.

Dear gawd what a fan-boy I've become. If the shoe fits ...

(H/T normblog)

Obama, Webb, and the Scots-Irish

This map (source) shows counties where Clinton received 65% or more of the vote in the Democratic party's nomination campaign; it was compiled before West Virginia or Kentucky voted, but we know from subsequent results that those states should be considered almost uniformly purple.

We will be hearing quite a bit more about the politics and culture of the Scots-Irish demographic -- surely the "hard-working white people" of Clinton campaign fame -- that predominates in much of the purple, in connection with the prospect of Virginia Senator Jim Webb becoming Obama's running mate.

Webb has written about the Scots-Irish subculture in Born Fighting: How the Scots-Irish Shaped America, and has parlayed his understanding into a successful political career. In an opinion piece he wrote in support of the book, he laid out the politics:

The decline in public education and the outsourcing of jobs has hit this culture hard. Diversity programs designed to assist minorities have had an unequal impact on white ethnic groups and particularly this one, whose roots are in a poverty-stricken South. Their sons and daughters serve in large numbers in a war whose validity is increasingly coming into question. In fact, the greatest realignment in modern politics would take place rather quickly if the right national leader found a way to bring the Scots-Irish and African-Americans to the same table, and so to redefine a formula that has consciously set them apart for the past two centuries.
A coalition that unites African-Americans and Scots-Irish? An Obama-Webb ticket sounds custom-tailored for that, and it's a pairing I would love to see not only for reasons of crass political calculation (although I would not claim to be innocent of those).

I would love to see an Obama-Webb campaign actually forge a functional political coalition that breaks out of the racialist rut we saw so vividly in the exit polls from West Virginia and Kentucky, and that we've seen in national politics at least since the 1960s. This could be an opportunity to make a new politics -- sound familiar, fellow Obama supporters? -- that engages African Americans (and other minorities) and Webb's Scots-Irish (and similar demographic groups) in a genuinely new way, a way that finds common ground between them rather than exploiting their superficial differences. This would, as Webb suggests, transform American politics.

The promise and challenge of forging that new politics -- against loud countervailing forces that are quite content with the old politics, thank you very much -- will be, arguably, central to the forthcoming presidential campaign, whether Webb is Obama's running mate or not. The challenges are by no means new; John at Obscene Desserts canvassed one small corner of them a few months back.

Wednesday, May 21, 2008

Like Dinosaur Tracks in Yemen

Somewhere there's the end of a downright charming and endlessly useful simile in that phrase, but for now, it will just have to refer to these actual dinosaur tracks discovered in Yemen. Afarensis has a write-up of the write-up.

I spent most of my childhood going around bends expecting, with less and less confidence as the years passed, that I'd come across a set of ancient dinosaur tracks. I never found any dinosaur tracks, just lots of wasps, ticks, spiders, chiggers, prairie dogs, fire ants, and every other creature listed on this Terrible Fauna of Oklahoma web page.

I should have checked Yemen.

"The greatness to bend history itself"

Ted Kennedy's eulogy of his brother is one of the many high marks in his public life. His medical condition is grave, but there may yet be more high marks to come.

Trying to Avoid Clinton-Hatred

She-Spartacus is not giving up. Today's theme: liberating the abused voters of Michigan and Florida from the ravages of rule-bound elections:

Now, I know that Senator Obama chose to remove his name from the ballot in Michigan, and that was his right. But his choice does not negate the votes of all those who turned out to cast their ballots, and we should not let our process rob them and all of you of your voices.
Fine. Let's play that out and observe its effect on the delegate math*, shan't we?

Clinton carried Michigan by a resounding 55% over also-rans Gravel, Kucinich, and none of the above -- Obama was not on the ballot. Under the proportional delegate allocation scheme, this gives her 70 more delegates.

Clinton got 50% of the votes in Florida. Obama was on the ballot, although he followed the agreement not to campaign there, and received 33% of the votes. Under the proportional delegate allocation scheme, this translates to 93 delegates for Clinton and 61 for Obama.

Obama's existing total (1699.5) + 61 FL delegates + 0 MI delegates = 1760.5.

Clinton's existing total (1547.5) + 93 FL delegates + 70 MI delegates = 1710.5.

Even under this scheme**, which is extremely charitable to She-Spartacus, Clinton still trails Obama.

It's over, She-Spartacus. Nice try, but you lost and Obama won. Get over it and get behind the party's nominee. Understand you are not that nominee, no matter how many open racists you've indulged in Appalachia, no matter how many times you've tried to change the rules, and no matter how many campaign ads you've pre-recorded for the McCain campaign.

I am working hard to continue to see Hillary Clinton as supportive of the Democratic party. It should not be this difficult.

* Delegate totals and calculations taken from the Slate delegate calculator.

** For what it's worth, John Cole has a more sensible proposal for resolving the Florida and Michigan delegations. It wouldn't rescue Clinton's failed campaign, so surely she's against it.

Wednesday Headless Chicken Gay Marriage Blogging

As previously mentioned, Dinesh D'Souza is terribly upset that judges have presumed to favor gays with the right to marry in the state of California, notwithstanding the fact that gays have sexual impulses of which he disapproves! This is how they dare, answers Ed Brayton, seconded by yours truly.

The bad idea blog, while agreeing with the ruling overall, responds to D'Souza's slippery-slope-to-polygamy line of argument and finds comfort in Dale Carpenter's assurances that, alas, we shall find our footing on the slope before reaching that terrible, horrible, no good, very bad point.

Hold on, answers Russell Blackford: so what if the ruling does entail a slippery slope all the way to legally sanctioned polygamy? That wouldn't be such a terrible thing, he insists, and it is all the more reason to support the idea of getting government out of the business of picking moral favorites among the varieties of human bonding. Let consenting adults form the unions they wish to form, he says, and let the law adapt, not the other way around. I have said the very same, and on Valentine's Day no less.

Benjamin Wittes might have benefitted from Blackford's insights, but alas, argues that the ruling goes too far by granting "marriage" per se to relationships many people find objectionable. He would prefer that gays content themselves with "civil unions" and let the heterosexuals maintain their state-granted monopoly on the word "marriage." Andrew Sullivan bristles at this suggestion, finding it an invidious separate-but-equal standard lacking a basis in law or, sadly, morals -- he wants the state picking moral favorites, he just wants marriage-minded gay people to be among the favorites.

Sigh. No doubt I've canvassed but a tiny share of the tilting-at-windmills and smashing-of-icons presently clogging the internets on this lively topic.

If you don't find this topic absorbingly depressing enough, might I recommend a slight detour to the coverage of an upsurge in Yankee-style Christian fundamentalism in Britain over at Obscene Desserts?

Happy Wednesday! Hide the knives.

Degrees of Invective

I am not the shrillest voice of irreligion on the internets. Really I am not! I say the honor goes to the Evolved and Rational blog, which regularly serves up dollups of invective like this one:

Religion appeals to cowards and the intellectually lazy because it frees them from the burden of actually thinking for themselves. They choose to remain in a state of moral retardation ...
Idiot fundies, please take some time to consider what I’ve been saying time and time again: Christians have no confidence in mapping the course of their lives, choosing instead to take their imaginary sky-god’s orders, whose so-called Word is interpreted by – guess who – mortal men! In the end, Christians who so hate worldly opinions on how to live their lives, come back to square one by relying on humans to interpret the screamingly inconsistent scripture.
This is why Christians cannot even agree among themselves what’s moral in the cases of, for example, homosexuality, divorce, abortion, birth control and euthanasia. If god was so clear about morals, why is there such confusion? Wouldn’t the solution to these dilemmas be clear-cut and written plainly in the Bible? Why don’t they just ask god what to do, since they claim that god is the basis of morality? The blunt truth is that these Christians are simply back at square one. In the end, they are still relying on fellow men, if not themselves, in making moral judgments. More often then not, their moral judgments will be seriously warped due to the twisting and cherry picking of scripture to support a particular view. The additional fact that the Bible can be used to support nearly every point of view doesn’t make things any easier either.
And by the way, when I label this as shrill, I mean that in the best, most laudatory way possible. I love its shrillness, its relentless sundering of bullshit. I love how it makes me smile as it makes very good points against god-drunk inanity.

By contrast, my denunciations of religion are moderate, nuanced, fair, balanced, decorous, and gentle. QED.

Politics and Race - How Ugly?

The exit polls from Kentucky, where Hillary Clinton defeated Barack Obama by a more than 2-1 margin in yesterday's primary, paint an ugly picture. 18% of white voters in Kentucky admitted to pollsters that race was an important factor in deciding between Obama and Clinton. The corresponding number was even higher in West Virginia.

Here in Oregon, where Obama defeated Clinton handily, the corresponding number was 7%. I suppose that's an improvement over Kentucky and West Virginia -- yay home team?

Race has been and will continue to be a factor in the presidential election. The Wide Stance party has a clear incentive to convert as much of the USA as possible into Appalachia writ large.

Will it succeed, and how ugly will things get along the way? And how will that National Conversation About Race we keep talking about having play into it?

Can't we all just get along?

Didn't everyone see that Star Trek episode?

Tuesday, May 20, 2008

Intelligent Design = Creationism

It's a simple point but an important one: "intelligent design" is the same thing as creationism. It is pushed by the same people for the same reasons, and it is not science. This is the substance of the latest brief instructional video from the National Center for Science Education:

(H/T Pharyngula)

Dinesh D'Souza: Stupid or Very Stupid?

Shaking his tiny fist at the California Supreme Court's ruling in favor of gay marriage, Dinesh D'Souza compares gay marriage with pet marriage, sibling marriage, child marriage, and polygamy, then clarifies the little point he was making with the comparisons:

The point is not that gay marriage is indistinguishable from child marriage or polygamy. The point is that any definition, and marriage is no exception, includes some people and excludes others. Consequently it’s unreasonable to say that gays have a constitutional right to over-ride the definition but other groups do not. The court’s real justification seems to have little to do with constitutional reasoning and everything to do with an assertion of political power. [emphasis mine]
The italicized part is rather odd considering that the court was careful to ground its ruling in the relevant constitutional and case law, and its reasoning lacked any appeal to the "political power" of gays or anyone else. The court was asked to consider whether the prohibition of gay marriage passed constitutional muster, and it did exactly that; that Dinesh D'Souza doesn't like the ruling doesn't convert it from legal reasoning to "political power" reasoning.

D'Souza is free, of course, to rebut the court's legal reasoning, but insofar as he bothers to attempt it, he embarrasses all stupid people with the following:
In issuing its ruling the California court appealed to the equal protection clause of the Fourteenth Amendment. The basic logic is that gays have a right to be treated like everyone else. But just like everyone else, gays do have the right to marry. They have the right to marry adult members of the opposite sex!
Indeed so! We have heard this blinkered idea of equality many times before: "the law, in its majestic equality, forbids rich and poor alike to sleep under bridges, beg in the streets or steal bread.” But D'Souza turns up the stupid to 11 for this one:
Read the constitution, hold it up to the light, squeeze lemon juice on it--you won't see a right to gay marriage in there. It is simply not an enumerated right, nor is it a right that can be clearly derived from other enumerated rights.
Ah yes, as I've noted before, right wingers love dragging their knuckles across the Constitution in a way that obscures the 9th amendment:
The enumeration in the Constitution, of certain rights, shall not be construed to deny or disparage others retained by the people.
It didn't take any lemon juice to see that in the text of the US Constitution.

Ed Brayton has more, much more, on the stupidity of D'Souza on this ruling, including the rather awkward and untoward history of D'Souza's legal reasonings, such as they are:
[T]his is the exact argument made by the state of Virginia in defending its laws against interracial marriage: that blacks and whites both have exactly the same right to marry someone of the same race and thus they are treated equally.
Verdict: very stupid.